PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — The markets of this chaotic city are usually cacophonous places, alive with the din of motorcycle rickshaws and legions of Pakistanis sizing up the pyramids of mangoes in one stall, office furniture in the next.
But on a recent dusky evening at Sadar market, shopkeepers sipped tea and looked out into an empty street. No one, they fretted, wants to risk being there the next time a suicide bomber strikes.
"Almost every shop here is empty," said Nisar Ahmed, 35, manager of a small clothing store in the bazaar. "No customers come. There are days when we just close early and go to sleep. We can't sustain this."
Pakistan's bid to subdue the Taliban has unleashed a wave of retaliatory suicide bombings in several major cities, from Islamabad, the capital, to the country's cultural center, Lahore.
No city, however, has been hit as hard as Peshawar, a metropolis of nearly 3 million just outside the Taliban-infested northwestern tribal areas. In recent weeks, suicide bombings have targeted crowded bazaars, police checkpoints, a movie theater and a heavily guarded luxury hotel frequented by Western diplomats and other foreigners.
Zahid Ullah Shinwari, the owner of a plastic sheeting factory and a PVC pipe plant not far from Peshawar, said he had been trying in vain for weeks to sell his businesses and move his family to safer ground.
"Who will invest in an area where everyone is fleeing?" said Shinwari, seated in a posh Peshawar office decorated with white laminate furniture and a large painting of a moose behind his desk. "But when you fear for your life, you can't think about business. There's only one thing on my mind right now, and that's how to save myself, how to sell my assets and find a safer place to live."
An early-evening drive shows just how rattled this city is. Restaurants once teeming with Peshawar's middle class are largely empty. There's not a soul in sight at Funland, a large family park with a Ferris wheel, bumper cars and other amusement rides that's a favorite with families.
"Cultural life has come to a standstill," said Behroz Khan, Peshawar bureau chief for the Geo TV network. "People don't go to restaurants anymore. They don't go to neighborhood festivals. People just stay indoors now."
The bombing last month of the Pearl Continental Hotel, which killed 11 people, appeared to be a last straw for many here. The hotel was seen as an oasis of security. Diplomats and dignitaries stayed there, and businesspeople often dined in its restaurant or used its health club.
The bombing, businesspeople said, appeared to confirm their worst suspicion -- that no place in Peshawar is safe.
"That was a nail in the coffin," said Mohammed Ishaq, vice president of Peshawar's chamber of commerce and owner of an adhesive tape plant in the city. "That made people really scared. We used to go there and feel so secure."
Since the government's offensive in the Swat Valley began in April, 25 companies have moved out of Peshawar, Ishaq said. Some went to Lahore, others to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Those that chose to stay have run into another problem: Workers aren't showing up for night shifts out of fear something could happen to them on their way to work.
"Factories in Peshawar don't have evening shifts anymore," Ishaq said.
At Sadar market, business owners say they can't hold on much longer. Ahmed's clothing store, Melody Garments, used to take in an average of $560 in sales daily. Now, he said, his store pulls in about $10 a day.
Next door, the sales at Tariq Javed's See and Select carpet shop have dropped by 75%.
"From morning to evening, there are no customers," Javed said angrily, as one of his workers sleepily leaned against a stack of rugs. "All the shop owners here sit idle all day. If this continues, we'll lose our business in a month."